Editor’s Note: When Scott Drew was named Baylor's head basketball coach in 2003, he inherited a program left in ruins by the murder of Bears player Patrick Dennehy and a cover-up scandal that rocked the entire college sports landscape. Guard Matt Sayman was among a handful of scholarship athletes and walk-ons who remained at Baylor and formed the core of Drew’s first team in 2003–04. In this essay, Sayman reflects on how Drew instilled meaning in what could have been a lost season—and how that forsaken team helped rebuild a program that defeated Gonzaga Monday night to win its first men’s NCAA Championship in school history.

Sayman, a former all-state player at The Colony High School, is head coach of the boys’ varsity basketball team at Grapevine Faith Christian School and author of a 2013 memoir about his Baylor career.

Eighteen years ago, at the beginning of my senior season on the Baylor University basketball team, my teammates and I sat in the front row for a press conference at the Ferrell Center. After living through one of the worst scandals in sports history, we were about to meet our new coach.

In walked 32-year-old Scott Drew. You could feel his energy vibrating with every step. He said he came to win games, to make deep postseason runs, and ultimately to win a national championship.

At the time, I didn’t share his optimism. I looked at our roster full of misfits—depending on the day, we had six or seven scholarship athletes and a handful of walk-ons. After three years of competing against the best of the best in the Big 12, I knew what was in store for us, and I knew we weren’t ready. But Coach Drew assured us that winning at Baylor was possible and that it was what he came to do.

When the 2003–04 season began, it looked as though his vision might never become reality. We were struggling to compete with teams that we would have run out of the gym in previous years. During one such performance, Coach Drew saw us playing without any passion. The guys on the floor knew the season was doomed once we got to conference play, and we were just going through the motions on the floor. No energy. No focus. No hope.

To make a point, Coach Drew subbed out the entire lineup of scholarship players and replaced us with five walk-ons. I don’t think that had ever happened at this level of Division I basketball before. The walk-ons gave it their all, which is what Coach Drew wanted to see, but eventually the opposition, with its greater talent, started pulling away. Coach Drew looked down the bench at his scholarship players before sending us back onto the floor and said, “You better play hard.”

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Boos echoed through the Ferrell Center. Our home fans were upset that the walk-ons were checking out of the game and that we were coming back in. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but looking back, I understand why they booed us. Our effort was false; it wasn’t authentic. Coach could see it, the crowd could sense it, and we players knew it. With seemingly nothing to play for that year, what were we competing for? Who really cared?

From day one, Coach Drew told us we were building something special. “You are setting the foundation for future players, for future teams, for future success.” He couldn’t have been talking to a more jaded, downtrodden group of players, but his mission and his relentless positivity finally wore us down. We stopped worrying about what supposed prize we were playing for and started playing for each other. 

Something powerful happens when you can look a teammate in the eye and know that he will give you his very, very best—and he understands you’ll do the same for him. When we started to believe as much as Coach believed, we began to achieve things nobody thought possible. When Purdue, ranked twenty-first in the nation and coming off a win over number two Duke earlier that year, played us in Waco, the Boilermakers found themselves up just three points with less than a minute to go. While one of their players shot important free throws, I looked across at their bench. The Purdue players were on the edge of their seats, arms locked together, and it dawned on me: They were worried about losing this game to us!

They didn’t—Purdue held their lead and hit foul shots down the stretch to win by a final score of 76–65. But we had pushed a top-25 to the brink of a loss. That was a victory.

Big 12 play started in Austin against a University of Texas team coming off a run to the previous year’s Final Four. The Longhorns were led by senior guards Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey, both holdovers from that 2003 team, which lost to Carmelo Anthony and the eventual champions from Syracuse University. We had two scholarship players ruled academically ineligible for the game, which meant our first sub off the bench would be a walk-on. We played our hearts out, but lost by twenty. Walking off the court, I noticed Texas fans standing and cheering. I looked over my shoulder, thinking that the Texas players must have stayed on the court, throwing down dunks to put on a show for the crowd. But the floor was empty. The Longhorn fans were applauding our effort in a game where we were clearly overmatched but refused to quit. That was a victory. 

Two weeks later, we beat Iowa State at home. The several thousand fans in attendance went crazy. I lifted my fist toward the small student section to thank them for fighting with us. In the locker room, Terrance Thomas, our leading scorer, erased the “0” on the board. That number represented the total wins every poll and expert had predicted we’d notch in the Big 12 that year. He emphatically wrote a “1.” Coach Drew, smiling from ear to ear, celebrated like we had just won the conference championship. That was a victory.

That’s the brilliance of Coach Drew and his coaching staff. They made us believe that our accomplishments, no matter how modest, had meaning. Outside of the locker room, our 1–3 Big 12 record didn’t matter much, but inside that room we felt like we had just won the national championship. We sprayed water and soda all over each other. We forgot the pain of the previous summer. For the first time in my career, the game became about more than just winning. The way we showed up—when others would have given up—mattered. Caring about each other more than ourselves mattered. We were playing for something bigger than ourselves, a vision that Coach Drew had and genuinely believed. 

I don’t know if an 8–21 team ever had as many victories as we did that season. We beat Texas A&M—twice. Their coach was fired after the second loss; dropping games to Baylor’s leftovers was the last straw. We were down four points with ten minutes to play at Kansas, up four against Texas Tech at halftime, and up fourteen at half against Oklahoma. We wound up losing all those games, but the college basketball world took notice of how we competed. 

Our last home game summed up the season. On paper, it was a winnable game against Kansas State. And after all we’d been through, we wanted to go out on a good note. What better way to finish this unforgettable season than with a victory at home? Kansas State had other plans. They shot the lights out to start the game and went into halftime with a twenty-point lead. Even then, facing our last half of basketball in a year in which we had no hopes of competing in the postseason, Coach Drew refused to mail it in—and I’ve never forgotten how badly he wanted us to win. He always expected more from his players and showed he loved us by demanding more than our best effort. 

In the second half against Kansas State, we stormed back and erased the Wildcats’ lead. In the final seconds, I found our best shooter, fellow senior R.T. Guinn, for a wide-open three to win the game. It felt like a movie. Time slowed down; memories flashed through my head: the first time I heard that Pat, my teammate, had gone missing; the coaches for whom I had played three years leaving in shame; and this new team of leftovers and our courageous coaching staff. R.T. missed the shot, but despite the disappointment of a loss, the entire team rushed over and hugged him. It was Senior Night, and the fans stayed behind as R.T., Terrance, and I said our goodbyes.

Down twenty at half and a chance to win at the buzzer. That was a victory.

Since leaving Baylor, I’ve often wondered what, exactly, we accomplished that last season. Coach Drew said it best: “In one year we raised the expectations.” After the complete dismantling of the program, the entire college hoops world thought it’d be years before the university put another competitive team on the floor. Well, the tone our ragtag crew set almost twenty years ago helped shorten the timeline between our 8–21 season and Baylor’s national championship win Monday night.

Over the years, I’ve met countless people who thanked me for sticking around and fighting through those times. I know I wasn’t the only one. Each game, my teammates went to war with me. For a few years after the end of my Baylor career, NCAA sanctions prevented Coach Drew’s teams from competing at the highest level—so the tradition of playing for each other as the season’s ultimate goal continued. Finally, in Coach Drew’s fifth season with the Bears, Baylor returned to the NCAA tournament. 

That Selection Sunday in 2008, I sat on my bed, tearing up as a team of Baylor athletes, none of whom I had played with, were chosen to play in March Madness. Just like no one expected our guys eighteen years ago to win Big 12 games against Iowa State and Texas A&M, no one would have expected Baylor basketball to be back in the big dance five years after the worst moment in the program’s history.

Coach Drew and his leadership made that incredibly fast rebuild possible. He was the one who wouldn’t allow us to quit in 2003–04. He inspired us to play hard and scrap for the sake of Baylor’s future success. Monday night, I watched this year’s Bears, stacked with incredible talent, compete with the same passion and desire as the seventeen Coach Drew teams that came before them. They played with so much joy—the emotion just burst out of them any time they saw one of their teammates do something special on the court. Watching this amazing group do what few experts thought they could do—beat the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs—made my heart full.

I want to thank them for making it ALL worth it. Monday’s win was for all the coaches and players who gave their best to move the program in this direction. Coach Drew always said we were building something special—but sometimes even I have a hard time believing that it led to Baylor’s first-ever men’s NCAA championship.

Eighteen years ago, with as many managers as players on the team, we lost 21 games but we played our tails off. Coach Drew told us this would happen one day—and man, was he right. I’m proud to be a small part of this story. Proud of every player, current and past, for getting us here. Proud of all the coaches that believed this was possible. Proud to be a Baylor Bear.